Two Days at Downton Abbey

Well, Highclere Castle is its real name. Like many American women, I loved the TV show Downton Abbey, and wanted to go visit the place where it was filmed, which is actually a lived-in home owned by the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. It’s only open certain days of the year, primarily in July and August (presumably the owners are at their summer estate somewhere), which must be booked in advance.

When my friend Amber was visiting last month, we (plus Baby R) went for a day trip.

We got an absolutely perfect day, weather-wise. Tickets let you tour the castle (well, part of it) either in the morning or afternoon (between 10-1 or 1-4), and then wander the grounds/gardens the rest of the day.

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Touring the castle takes about 45 minutes, more or less. Sometimes there’s a queue to enter the castle, but not always. If you’re not in a rush, wander the gardens until the queue dies down.

Tourist attire on point
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See? No more queue

Photos aren’t allowed inside the castle, so my pictures stop here at the entrance.

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You walk through the library, drawing room, dining room (the table looked reasonably sized, but I was informed it has 12 leaves and can seat up to 28), smoking room, music room, and the “heart of Highclere,” which is the centre of it all; and you can peek into several bedrooms, including Cora’s, Mary’s, and Edith’s.

What struck me the most was how worn and shabby a lot of the furniture looked. The castle itself is quite grand, of course, and the many oil paintings of past and present family members let you know this is an aristocratic household that goes back a long way, but the furniture and home decor in the rooms isn’t particularly fancy. Well maybe apart from Napoleon’s writing desk. I’d love to get a peek at the rooms they actually live in and see how modern they are. Apparently there are 50 bedrooms in the castle, so you see a relatively small portion of them.

There are loads of family photos in frames all over the tables throughout the castle, plus modern books and magazines lying about, which serve to remind you it’s not actually Downton Abbey.

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There are three different small cafe-type food purchase options all in a row behind the castle, with plenty of outdoor tables; or you can pack a picnic and just enjoy sitting outside on the lawn and admiring the views of the estate. There’s a gift shop, too, of course.

I went back again this month with my in-laws (plus Baby R again, and this time E too, since she’s out of school for summer holidays).

I treated my MIL to afternoon tea in the Coach House, which is an add-on option when you buy your tickets. Children aren’t allowed at the tea, so my FIL was kind enough to hang out with the girls on the picnic blanket while my MIL and I clinked glasses of Champagne.

 

Getting to Highclere Castle

Getting to Highclere Castle is not the easiest thing to figure out. The best thing to do, probably, is to drive there. It’s certainly the most straightforward and direct option, and may even be cheaper than using public transit. Google Maps estimates it will take between an hour and 20 minutes to two hours and 10 minutes from here. If you’re like me and afraid to drive in England, you have to find another way. It took us about two and a half hours one way, door to castle gate, but through my trial and errors, I now think I could get there faster.

The castle website says there’s good rail service from Paddington Station to Newbury, or Waterloo Station to Whitchurch, and from those two stations you can get a taxi to Highclere. However, we had complications arise both times that resulted in a fair amount of stress.

When Amber and I went, we took a train from Clapham Junction to Waterloo, then a train from Waterloo to Whitchurch, and had pre-booked a taxi from there. However, the morning of, I received an email that the taxi I had booked online the night before to pick us up at Whitchurch Station had canceled on us, no reason given. So we arrived at Whitchurch and didn’t have a way to get to the castle. It’s a tiny station in a little village, with no one working at the station at all. We looked at a board posted on the station with travel information, and there was one other taxi company listed besides the one that had just flaked on us. So I crossed my fingers and dialed. We got really lucky that he was available right then, because the private car-hire company is just him. Steve at AAP Private Hire came to our rescue in just five minutes, agreed to pick us up from the castle that afternoon, and charged us £20 each way, which was less than we had paid online for the other company.

So I thought I had it figured out for the second trip, but no. There are major issues at Clapham Junction and Waterloo this month while they are constructing more platforms (or wider platforms? or longer platforms? I am not really sure, I just know it’s a huge pain in the ass to get anywhere right now), so we had to figure out a way that didn’t involve going through Waterloo. We also had to get to Clapham Junction extra early, because they’ve been warning that you may have to queue for 45 minutes to enter the station or board a train, because there are fewer trains running. Also, Steve from AAP was already booked for the morning, so we had to go with a different private car hire out of Whitchurch, who was going to charge us £35 instead of £20, ugh.

It was actually all going pretty smoothly to start, we didn’t have trouble getting into the station or onto the platform… but then we got on the wrong train. We had tickets for the train to Basingstoke, and then were going to change to a train to Whitchurch. Well, we got on an earlier train to Basingstoke, which turned out to be the slow train that called at a lot of different stations, rather than the train we were supposed to be on that was scheduled to leave 6 minutes later but was direct. Which meant we were going to miss our connecting train to Whitchurch. Which departs only once an hour.

In a flurry of frustration and panic, I tried to figure out what we could do. As it turned out, the train we were supposed to have boarded was one of the trains delayed thanks to the Waterloo works, so we would have missed our connection anyway. Eventually I came upon a solution that worked out even better: I got a taxi to pick us up at Basingstoke once we arrived, and for some reason, even though it’s farther, he only charged us £20! I don’t know why the castle website doesn’t list Basingstoke as an option, but it’s definitely easier to get a taxi from there than from Whitchurch, and it’s the same price.

Now I finally know the best way to get there from where I live: Train from Clapham Junction to Basingstoke (42 minutes), then taxi from Basingstoke (about 25 minutes; call ahead to order one; we used Alpha Cars.

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A Proper English Garden

Going from a house with a big yard and lawns that needed quite a bit of regular maintenance to a house with a small “garden” that’s literally just a patio made us really lazy when it came to plant upkeep. We pretty much didn’t do anything back here for almost a year, other than buy a new patio table set.

But finally this summer, we realised the old bamboo planters had had it. Everything was either dead or now weeds, and the planter pots themselves were literally crumbling. Yikes, what an eyesore!

Before

We went to Battersea Flower Station, which is a cute name if you are familiar with Battersea Power Station, and asked for some advice on container planting. We ended up buying a bunch of plants for some new planters (which I bought at Homebase), seven different herb plants for me to grow an herb garden, plus a strawberry plant for E.

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I spent some time planting it all, added some fairy lights to the lattice, and voila! A much more visually pleasant space in which to spend our summer evenings.

After

Our entire back wall between the kitchen and the garden is an accordion glass door, so we can open up the whole wall and it’s like one big indoor-outdoor room, which we absolutely love. (It helps that there aren’t big bitey mosquitoes here.)

My herb garden has exploded, too. I’ve had to make and freeze batches of pesto because my basil just went crazy. I don’t even know what to do with all the sage and mint that have gone wild. Come by, bring some gin, and I’ll make you a minty G&T.